Plenty of bands advocate anarchy, but few have practiced it with the single-minded determination of Mercury Rev, a psychedelically inclined sextet given over to every-man-for-himself excursions as open-ended as “pop” music has seen in many a year. While analogous in some ways to the Flaming Lips (a band that guitarist Jonathan “Dingus” Donahue played with for one album, In a Priest Driven Ambulance, in 1990; Rev bassist David Fridmann co-produced that LP), Mercury Rev possesses neither the Lips’ pop savvy nor the user-friendliness. The free-form freakouts, however, are there in full force.
On Yerself Is Steam (go on, say it aloud), the band — which formed in Buffalo in the ’80s — layers the sonic effluvia on so thick you’d swear they were counting on the sheets of sound as protection against a long lake effect snowstorm. Donahue and primary vocalist David Baker occasionally poke their heads out to recite inscrutable verses like those of “Chasing a Bee” and “Coney Island Cyclone’ (the disc’s most linear — and Lips-like — tune), but the most compelling songs, like the sumptuous “Sweet Oddysee of a Cancer Cell t’ th’ Center of Yer Heart,” aggressively challenge listeners to cull individual kernels of sound from the pandemonium. (The British edition included a bonus record, Lego My Ego, containing single sides, radio sessions, live material and the score for a short film.) Besides a bracing six-theremin assault on the title track, The Hum Is Coming From Her teams the band with avant-garde poet Robert Creeley, who reads his “So There” over skewed big-band backing.
Boces (which takes its name from a New York State program designed to train the unskilled labor force of the future) asserts the band’s everything-including-the-kitchen-sink aesthetic from the first notes of the dizzying “Meth of a Rockette’s Kick” — a ten-minute mélange of piercing feedback, doo-wop harmonies and Suzanne Thorpe’s tranquil flute playing. Every so often, Mercury Rev manages to coerce all the elements it tosses up to hang in mid-air, defying gravity (as on the opalescent “Something for Joey”); more frequently, kismet fails to do its part, rendering tracks like “Trickle Down” and “Downs Are Feminine Balloons” simply slipshod and shapeless. Besides the LP track of its title, Something for Joey gives an American release to the Creeley collaboration “So There,” includes two ’93 live tracks (Boces‘ “Boys Peel Out” and 13 minutes of “Very Sleepy Rivers”), plus a phone interview with porn actor Ron Jeremy, who appeared in the “Something for Joey” video.
Baker left the group in 1994, citing the usual irreconcilable differences — but judging by the affinity between both parties’ subsequent output, those conflicts were probably the intra-band equivalent of squabbles over what color to paint the guest bathroom. Admittedly, the title track of the Everlasting Arm EP (reprised on See You on the Other Side) is a fairly straightforward wisp of Smile-like pop, but ancillary pieces like “Dead Man” (written and read by Suicide legend Alan Vega) and 30-odd minutes of surreptitiously recorded family-room chatter indicate that all the kinks haven’t been ironed out. See You on the Other Side establishes Donahue’s role as unchallenged leader, but other than an appreciable sludge-removal effort, he does little to tamper with the ingrained formula. “Empire State (Son House in Excelsis)” and “Sudden Ray of Hope” are augmented with some surprisingly punchy, direct brass lines, but there’s no mistaking the scattered bliss-pop undertow that permeates “Young Man’s Stride.” The trip is still long and strange; it’s just marked by fewer stopovers.
The Harmony Rockets pseudonym allows Mercury Rev ample room for digression: Paralyzed Mind of the Archangel Void consists of a single undulating 40-minute piece that recalls some of the late-’60s more arcane trance-rock meditations.
Shady, essentially Baker’s solo project (with cameos by St. Johnny’s Bill Whitten and ex-Rollerskate Skinny guitarist Jimi Shields), lets him serve up slightly more reasonable portions of the same sonic eccentricity he brought to Mercury Rev. He’s just as likely to play depth perception parlor tricks — layers of harmonies and guitar noise ebb and flow through songs like “Hey Yeah!” and “Soul of Things to Come” — but World reveals a heretofore unseen sentimental side in the shape of the lovely “Narcotic Candy” (co-written by Seam’s Sooyoung Park) and a cover of Gene Clark’s “Life’s Greatest Fool.” Sweetly addictive.
Mercury Rev shifted course with Deserter’s Songs, focusing the fertile imagination and attention to detail they’d been using to construct psychedelic freakouts on more traditional songs. The results could best be described as enchanted Americana, and Deserter’s Songs often sounds like the soundtrack to the Wizard of Oz if it had been directed by John Ford. Mercury Rev layers ideas atop inspiration atop invention — at times the music becomes so ornate it threatens to make Pet Sounds sound like the Plastic Ono Band. Garth Hudson (of the Band) contributes saxophone to the aptly named “Hudson Line,” while Levon Helm (ditto) turns up on “Opus 40.” A soaring female soprano dukes it out with a bowed saw on the windswept “Endlessly,” during which it’s almost possible to envision the Emerald City rising up out of Monument Valley. “Holes,” “Tonight It Shows” and “Goddess on a Highway” are also small gems of creativity. Donahue isn’t much of a vocalist, but his shaggy-dog voice can be very endearing. Deserter’s Songs is absolutely magical and nothing short of spectacular. The 2011 reissue appends a second disc of demos and alternate mixes.
Deserter’s Songs and its spiritual sibling, the Flaming Lips’ Soft Bulletin, made Fridman an in-demand producer. As a result, he withdrew from full-time Revdom, as did Thorpe (drummer Jimy Chambers quit outright), leaving Donahue and guitarist Grasshopper as the remaining core. At the same time, they gained a fan in the person of legendary producer Jack Nitzsche, and plans were made for him to produce the band’s next album, but Nitzsche died the week before recording was to begin. All Is Dream is a sort of tribute to him, an attempt to imagine what his sonic vision for the band would have been. The song lengths and structures are more elaborate than on Deserter’s Songs, but the arrangements are stripped back. This fine album contains several striking songs (notably “The Dark Is Rising” and “Nite and Fog”), but it suffers in comparison to the artistic breakthrough of its immediate predecessor.
Mercury Rev’s next album was released normally overseas but teased into US circulation as a series of EPs. The Secret Migration, something of a concept album on love, life and romance, returns Rev to the lushness of Deserter’s Songs. Donahue, Grasshopper and Fridman weave a dizzying quilt of sound in the service of Donahue’s most unabashedly romantic songs. While at times the album becomes so lightheaded it threatens to evaporate into nothingness, it is yet another dazzling achievement for the band. There are few more unlikely transformations in pop music than Mercury Rev’s journey from anarchic noisemakers to purveyors of unambiguously gorgeous and delicate pop music, and The Secret Migration feels like the culmination of that long, strange trip.
Hello Blackbird is a soundtrack album for the independent film Bye Bye Blackbird. Consisting almost entirely of instrumentals with only an occasional processed vocal, the album offers Americana-flavored song fragments fueled by singing saws and woodwind drones, which drift by and collide. The album feels like a half-remembered dream of Deserter’s Songs. If few tracks are memorable on their own (the waltzes “The White Birds” and “Waltz for Alice” do stand out), the album conveys a powerful mood of otherworldly beauty.
Having taken pastoral songcraft to its ultimate point on The Secret Migration, Snowflake Midnight returns Mercury Rev to the sonic mood pieces of earlier work. However, unlike the flailing, anarchic noise jams of Yerself Is Steam and Boces, Snowflake Midnight focuses on lower-key, Krautrock-influenced electronics. Though the instrumentation is different, it is definitely a continuation of the mood of The Secret Migration. Taken purely as soundscapes, most of Snowflake Midnight is quite beautiful — not unlike the ambient ‘90s electronica of Moby and Vapourspace. Unfortunately, Snowflake Midnight is not an instrumental album, and Donahue gets into some trouble with his lyrics, which are generally vapid. Observations like “Snowflake in a hot world / Don’t let them get to you” and “I’m beating like a butterfly wing / see what you’ve done to me” leave the unavoidable impression that Donahue has watched the Flaming Lips’ unlikely transition into beloved cuddly teddy bears with envy. The bunnies and kitties featured on Snowflake Midnight’s cover do not seem ironic, a shocking development for a band that once created a music video featuring Ron Jeremy riding a rocket through a psychedelic orgy. The music on Snowflake Midnight is gorgeous enough to make the album worthwhile, but it shows just how far the band has traveled since “Something for Joey” and “Chasing a Bee.”
Strange Attractor was available as a free download with purchase of Snowflake Midnight or as a double album on vinyl. Unlike Snowflake Midnight it’s entirely instrumental; however, also unlike Snowflake Midnight, the music isn’t particularly memorable. Gentle electronica and occasional forays into mellow drum-and-bass textures are the order of the day. Diverting background music, it’s instantly forgettable.
Stillness Breathes is a two-disc best-of, a generous notion for a band that’s never come close to clawing its way out of cult status. The first disc consists of the band’s greatest “hits” presented in non-chronological order, which makes for dizzying mood swings, as material from The Secret Migration and All Is Dreamsegues into cuts from Yerself is Steam and Boces. The second disc compiles B-sides and rarities, including covers of John Lennon, Bob Dylan and “The Streets of Laredo.” Back to Mine is the band’s selection of its influences, such folks as Suicide, Galaxie 500 and Terry Jacks. It also includes an otherwise unreleased Mercury Rev tune, “Cecilia’s Lunar Expose.”
Recorded in the gap between See You on the Other Side and Deserter’s Songs, Grasshopper’s solo album, The Orbit of Eternal Grace, functions as a bridge between early and latter-day Mercury Rev. Applying the sonic hooliganism of early Rev to the type of concise pop songs the band would later pursue, Grasshopper and the Golden Crickets (including Suzanne Thorpe) create a winning album of noisy, tuneful psychedelic pop not far removed from the Olivia Tremor Control or Helio Sequence.